Monday, January 31, 2011

Kristin Livdahl's A Brood of Foxes

Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce the publication of A Brood of Foxes: A Novella by Kristin Livdahl as Volume 29 in the Conversation Pieces Series.

Uncanny, sweet, and shot through with fairytale weirdness, A Brood of Foxes takes Joey Napoleon into a world as bizarre as anyone’s first adulthood—with a few differences. Set in a place where time has its own logic, human and animal is a shifting perspective, and the people we love are always slightly other—and better—than we imagined, A Brood of Foxes faces us with the moral dimensions of environmental disasters—in a troublingly literal way.

You can purchase A Brood of Foxes now through Aqueduct Press's website.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sheree Renée Thomas's Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems

Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce the release of Shotgun Lullabies: Stories and Poems by Sheree Renée Thomas as Volume 28 in the Conversation Pieces Series.

In this first collection of the stories and poetry of Sheree Renée Thomas, memory is the only force strong enough to counter the terrors of a scarred and forgetful world.

Thomas’s characters are people scraping by in slave quarters and institutional margins, people in search of freedom and transformation who come face to face with apocalyptic powers. Thrown back on their wits and their lore, they turn to unexpected sources to make sense of things: to girl-children, old women, old skills, old magic, and forgotten ties of kinship with the natural world. Rooted in the Mississippi Delta, Thomas’s language is the stuff of life and the struggle to call things by their true names. It reaches through time in search of the transformation that will allow us to survive diaspora with memory and soul intact. These shotgun lullabies puncture the walls between us and our past, the people and their birthright.

You can purchase Shotgun Lullabies now through Aqueduct Press's website.

Last chance!

WisCon has extended the deadline for submitting programming ideas to 8 p.m. EST, Monday, January 31:

The revolution has been televised -- on Al Jazeera. Echos of Cory Doctorow's _Little Brother_, social media has facilitated people changing their world, sharing those changes with us, compelling our attention, drawing public scrutiny.

Excited about what is happening in Egypt? Want to talk about it at WisCon 35? In response to popular request, we have extended the panel idea submission deadline for 48 hours!

(Please boost the signal! Thank you.)

Edit for clarity: extended deadline is 8pm Eastern, Monday, Jan. 31st.

"He is not squeamish"

The signs strike me as ominous. Military aircraft (F-16s and helicopters) are flying low over Cairo; Al Jazeera, which has been broadcasting heroically, has been shut down by the Mubarak government; and Mubarak has been spotted at a military operations center. Most ominous of all, though, is his appointment of Omar Suleiman as his deputy. Suleiman has quite the pedigree. According to both Stephen Gray and Jane Mayer, he is one of the key men in the CIA's torture/rendition program. ("He is not squeamish," Mayer quotes a former ambassador to Egypt as writing.) He has a grisly record for not only ordering torture but also performing it personally (notwithstanding his age).

Stephen Soldz writes:
Suleiman wasn't just the go-to bureaucrat for when the Americans wanted to arrange a little torture. This "urbane and sophisticated man" apparently enjoyed a little rough stuff himself.

Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, torture by Pakistanis. He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomats watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman's personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib's memoir:

Habib was interrogated by the country's Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman.... Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.

That treatment wasn't enough for Suleiman, so:

To loosen Habib's tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib - and he did, with a vicious karate kick.

After Suleiman's men extracted Habib's confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His "confession" was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.

The Washington Post's intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein reported some additional details regarding Suleiman and his important role in the old Egypt the demonstrators are trying to leave behind:
"Suleiman is seen by some analysts as a possible successor to the president," the Voice of American said Friday. "He earned international respect for his role as a mediator in Middle East affairs and for curbing Islamic extremism."

An editorialist at Pakistan's "International News" predicted Thursday that "Suleiman will probably scupper his boss's plans [to install his son], even if the aspiring intelligence guru himself is as young as 75."

Suleiman graduated from Egypt's prestigious Military Academy but also received training in the Soviet Union. Under his guidance, Egyptian intelligence has worked hand-in-glove with the CIA's counterterrorism programs, most notably in the 2003 rendition from Italy of an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Omar.

In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Suleiman as the Middle East's most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

In an observation that may turn out to be ironic, the magazine wrote, "More than from any other single factor, Suleiman's influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak."
If Suleiman succeeds Mubarak and retains power, we will likely be treated to plaudits for his distinguished credentials from government officials and US pundits. We should remember that what they really mean is his ability to brutalize and torture.
State-sponsored torture is incompatible with democracy. But you already knew that, right?

2011 Omindawn Chapbook Poetry Prize

For all you poets out there:

Omnidawn Publishing (the folks who published the excellent Paraspheres anthology) have announced that submissions are open for their annual poetry contest:

Ben Lerner will judge the 2011 Omnidawn Chapbook Poetry Contest.

Electronic and postal submissions will be accepted from January 1, 2011 to February 28, 2011.

The 2011 Omnidawn Chapbook Poetry Prize is open to any poet writing in English. The prize includes $1,000, Fall 2011 publication by Omnidawn, and 100 complimentary copies of the chapbook. The winning poet and manuscript will also be  advertised in American Poetry Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Chronicle, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other publications. Manuscripts will remain anonymous until a winner is selected. All entrants will be mailed a copy of the winning chapbook. The reading fee for each manuscript is $15.

More details here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

During the second Bush regime, the regime's mouthpieces declared that they could create reality from scratch by ignoring facts they found inconvenient. Similarly, certain allies of the regime insisted on "faith-based" (rather than fact-based) "science." Opponents of the regime then began using the expression "reality-based." Facts, after all, were all they (we) had. Facts can be stubborn things that while easily ignored often make themselves felt in uncomfortable ways.

Sadly, as the continued thriving of Fox News attests, in the US the replacement of the Bush Administration with the Obama Administration hasn't really led to facts making a successful comeback in the public sphere. Today, browsing the news, it struck me that facts are as endangered as ever. One of the key techniques for undermining facts is imposing arbitrary definitions on the key words through which facts are expressed, and today I was seeing it everywhere. Here are a few examples:

--Nick Bauman reports in Mother Jones today that Republicans in the US House of Representatives are working on a plan to redefine "rape":
The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to "forcible rape." This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith's spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old's parents wouldn't be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn't be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.


"This bill takes us back to a time when just saying 'no' wasn't enough to qualify as rape," says Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women's Law Center. Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, notes that the new bill's authors are "using language that's not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection." Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes. "There are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included," Levenson says.

As for the incest exception, the bill would only allow federally funded abortions if the woman is under 18.

The bill hasn't been carefully constructed, Levenson notes. The term "forcible rape" is not defined in the federal criminal code, and the bill's authors don't offer their own definition. In some states, there is no legal definition of "forcible rape," making it unclear whether any abortions would be covered by the rape exemption in those jurisdictions.

The main abortion-rights groups despise the Smith bill as a whole, but they are particularly outraged by its rape provisions. Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, calls the proposed changes "unacceptable." Donna Crane, the policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that making the "already narrow exceptions for public funding of abortion care for rape and incest survivors even more restrictive" is "unbelievably cruel and heartless."

"This bill goes far beyond current law," says Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a co-chair of the congressional pro-choice caucus. The "re-definition" of the rape exception "is only one element" of an "extreme" bill, she adds, citing other provisions in the law that pro-abortion rights groups believe would lead to the end of private health insurance coverage for abortion.

"Somebody needs to look closely at this," Levenson says. "This is a bill that could have a dramatic effect on women, and language is important. It sure sounds like somebody didn't want [the exception to cover] all the different types of rape that are recognized under the law."

--A three-inch section of a small plastic toy is redefined as a "gun": Security personnel at Gatwick Airport insisted on removing a three inch section of plastic from a figurine of a soldier because the plastic depicted a gun. (Yes, the British are doing it too.) Here's USA Today:
The Sun of London reports "Canadian Julie Lloyd was carrying the 9 inch-tall replica of a British soldier in his hand luggage. But the £135 ($215) model triggered an alarm as it passed through a scanner at Gatwick Airport. Security officials took one look at the SA80 rifle held by the figurine and ruled it was a firearm."

Husband Ken tells London's Daily Express: "My wife asked for a reality check, explaining that the molded and painted rifle is part of the figure. But the supervisor was confident within the surety of the regulations that a firearm is a firearm and could not pass."

Personnel did allow the toy soldier on the flight, but only without its 3-inch gun. For that, Lloyd was forced to return to a concession area and bought an envelope to mail home the gun. It arrived in Canada five days later.

The story appears to have been a long-time in the making.

The National Post of Toronto writes "Ms. Lloyd purchased the figuring during an April, 2009, trip, but the story is making news now because the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford Camp …, where she bought the souvenir, went public with the story after learning about it from Ms. Lloyd this past autumn. She says she's already been interviewed by several newspapers in the U.K., and has been invited on a popular breakfast talk show."
Can we now expect that paintings, drawings, and videos of firearms will also be redefined as "guns"? Where does such representational madness end? The "reality check" "Husband Ken" mentions apparently left the security personnel unmoved. The facts, in that case, were apparently inconsequential.

--And then we have US Vice President Joe Biden asserting yesterday on PBS's Newhour that Hosni Mubarak, the man who took office via a coup and has oppressed and repressed the people of Egypt, and brutally suppressed all forms of political expression, for twenty-nine years, "is not a dictator." The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.

Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: "We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out." He also said: "I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable... accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt."

Egypt's protesters, if they're paying attention to Biden at all, will certainly be wondering which of their demands thus far have been illegitimate.
Thanks to Wikileaks' release of more cables today, we know that Biden knows that "police brutality in Egypt is routine and pervasive and the use of torture so widespread that the Egyptian government has stopped denying it exists." The Guardian reports:

The batch of US embassy cables paint a despairing portrait of a police force and security service in Egypt wholly out of control. They suggest torture is routinely used against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers.

"The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the time of the pharoahs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone," one cable said.

Under Hosni Mubarak's presidency there had been "no serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution", it said. The police's ubiquitous use of force had pervaded Egyptian culture to such an extent that one popular TV soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beat up suspects to collect evidence.

Some middle-class Egyptians did not report thefts from their apartment blocks because they knew the police would immediately go and torture "all of the doormen", the cable added. It cited one source who said the police would use routinely electric shocks against suspected criminals, and would beat up human rights lawyers who enter police stations to defend their clients. Women detainees allegedly faced sexual abuse. Demoralised officers felt solving crimes justified brutal interrogation methods, with some believing that Islamic law also sanctioned torture, the cable said.

Another cable, from March 2009, said Egypt's bloggers were playing an "increasingly important role" in society and "in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse". There had been a significant change over the past five years, it said, with bloggers able to discuss sensitive issues such as sexual harassment, sectarian tensions, the military and even abortion.

At the same time, a clampdown by the Egyptian government and other repressive measures meant bloggers were no longer a "cohesive activist movement". In 2009, an estimated 160,000 bloggers were active in Egypt, writing in Arabic and sometimes English. Most were 20-35 years old.

--And then we have a "former US Ambassador to Morroco, talking "domino theory" trash at the Huffington Post. While he acknowledges the justness of the "unorganized demonstrators'" demands for reform, he also views it as a threat to the US's imperial aspirations. His take is not quite as whacky as Fox News's summation of the rebellion in Egypt (i.e., that the forces of Al Quaeda are behind it all) but is certainly as perverse in its use of language:

Sadly, despite all the United States has done for Egypt, It may not matter what we say or do in the long run. Events are running at warp speed... too fast for Washington, and virtually out of sight at the "asleep at the switch" CIA, which likely failed to anticipate the rapidly deteriorating events.

Despite all the US has done for Egypt? For Egypt???? Who does he think he's kidding (besides, possibly) himself? The US's "support" for the regime has done terrible things to Egypt. Support for the regime (and its tiny wealthy elite) can never by any means be considered support for "Egypt." As any Egyptian on the street (especially at this moment) would be happy to inform the Former Ambassador to Morroco. And second, just what does he think the CIA would/should/could have done had they not been "asleep at the switch"? Dug out another creepy piece of shit to place in the wings, to take over should Mubarak be forced out? (Will he be forced out? It's actually, truly, up in the air. Alexandria is now reportedly entirely in the hands of demonstrators and without a functioning police department.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drone technology and "the social norm"

Whenever the US deploys new technology abroad, against foreign populations, you can be sure it will eventually (sometimes very soon) be adopted for domestic uses. The latest such technology is the drone. The CIA has been using drone technology in Pakistan to do the work of a death squad by remote control. (Death squads, of course, are evil entities, and so it's probably controversial to note that extrajudicial assassinations of persons are what death squads do.) Constantly and scandalously the CIA's drones have killed bystanders there, thus inciting public outrage and the outing and recall of the CIA's chief of station in Pakistan (to prevent his being hauled into a court of law on charges of murder, since he was present in Pakistan on a business rather than a diplomatic visa). We can easily imagine the scenario: the operative seated comfortably in an ergonomic chair at a console in the embassy, perhaps munching a snack or sipping a cup of coffee, killing real people with the ease of someone playing a video game, all the muss and fuss safely distanced and the resulting adrenalin surge utterly guilt-free, even when small children are their victims.

That is in Pakistan. (And Iraq and Afghanistan. And maybe even other places, for all we know, since the US is conducting military operations in dozens of countries abroad.) But now, if you live in the US, the drone will likely be coming in all sizes and shapes and purposes, to a city near you. So far the uses being proposed are that of surveillance, but we all know where taking that road typically ends. If US law enforcement can do something with the equipment they're given, they will.

Here's the Washington Post's Peter Finn:

For now, the use of drones for high-risk operations is exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration - which controls the national airspace - requires the few police departments with drones to seek emergency authorization if they want to deploy one in an actual operation. Because of concerns about safety, it only occasionally grants permission.

But by 2013, the FAA expects to have formulated new rules that would allow police across the country to routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground - high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.

Such technology could allow police to record the activities of the public below with high-resolution, infrared and thermal-imaging cameras.

One manufacturer already advertises one of its small systems as ideal for "urban monitoring." The military, often a first user of technologies that migrate to civilian life, is about to deploy a system in Afghanistan that will be able to scan an area the size of a small town. And the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence to seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.

But when drones come to perch in numbers over American communities, they will drive fresh debates about the boundaries of privacy. The sheer power of some of the cameras that can be mounted on them is likely to bring fresh search-and-seizure cases before the courts, and concern about the technology's potential misuse could unsettle the public.

And the best thing about this, for police departments? It's relatively cheap. As Finn notes, the real question is whether citizens will stand for it:
Still, Joseph J. Vacek, a professor in the Aviation Department at the University of North Dakota who has studied the potential use of drones in law enforcement, said the main objections to the use of domestic drones will probably have little to do with the Constitution.

"Where I see the challenge is the social norm," Vacek said. "Most people are not okay with constant watching. That hover-and-stare capability used to its maximum potential will probably ruffle a lot of civic feathers."

The article notes that there was apparently a revolt in Houston in 2007 against a pilot program for using drones. (Finn couldn't discover the reason for the program's being "aborted," but suspects it had to do with traffic tickets.) My guess is that most people will stand for it. The post 9/11 routine is well established. Some prominent politician receiving campaign funds from a company that makes drone technology will loudly and repreatedly claim that domestic use of the technology will make everyone safer, and then no elected official anywhere will be willing to oppose it. (That's how the boondoggle of the body scanner became standard TSA technology.) After all, for ten years we've been putting up with the security theater we all sacrifice our dignity to at airports, though it's degrading and is purely cosmetic. The politicians know it-- and also know they can't advocate dispensing with any particular component of it, no matter how absurd and ineffective it can be shown to be. As for the "social norm": no one seems to mind that citizens who videotape the police making arrests in public places (particularly when police misconduct is involved) are likely to go to jail for doing so. (Naturally the police can videotape anything they like.)

So tell me. Are we living in a police state yet?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Arisia and the Carl Brandon Society Awards

While I was away in La Push, several Aqueductistas were attending Arisia and the Carl Brandon Society awards ceremony held at Arisia. Although I can't offer a report of a con that I didn't attend, I do have some pictures, sent to me by Andrea Hairston and Vandana Singh, taken by Andrea's partner Pan Morrigan and Vandana's daughter, respectively. At once, looking at the pictures of Andrea, I was thrilled to recognize her style as right out of Redwood and Wildfire.

Go Dracula?

I spent the long weekend away, at La Push, which is on the coast of northern Washington. Not many places in the US are without cellular access, but La Push is one of them. Somehow, that added an interesting dimension to the experience. It rained and stormed (complete with thunder and lightning, so rare in the Pacific Northwest, on Saturday night) most of the time we were there. On Sunday I got soaked to the skin on Rialto beach and was happy I'd brought a second pair of pants. We visited Rialto beach again on Monday, but though it wasn't raining as hard, the wind made the surf so high that even near low tide the beach was impassible. But we found a few of those elegant ducks that are known as common golden-eyes (though there's nothing "common" about them) and some punky buffleheads as well as a seal on the Quilauete River (the estuary that cuts Rialto beach off from La Push), and later saw an eagle, too.

It'd been a few years since I'd been in Forks, the biggest town in the area. My memories of the place are mostly of bumper stickers in the 1990s calling for the eradication of spotted owls (a species that lives only in old-growth forest, and when put on the endangered list came to be perceived by loggers as their enemy, since, the loggers claimed, their jobs depended on the logging corporations being allowed to chop down (i.e., "harvest") every old growth tree still standing) and, in the post-911 years, of US flags everywhere you looked. But the current fetish in Forks is the franchising of Twilight merchandise and themes, with the result that its very short main street is dominated by Twilight retail. Since I haven't read the books or seen the movies, I'm not sure what the connection with Forks is, and I'm sure I missed some of the references. (I noticed that Port Angeles had at least one Twilight franchise as well.) Forks has had a depressed economy for a long time, so I can't blame its residents for trying to cash in on the blockbuster connection. But then on Monday, walking on the beach at La Push just before sunset, I found that someone had written in the sand "Fuck Twilight Go Dracula" (see photo). I won't speculate here on who wrote it, but I must say I've enjoyed myself, making up stories about the person(s) who drew those words in the sand. Some of the time I think "Dracula" is a reference to the novel rather than the character. At other times, I think the reverse. Graffiti, after all, isn't always grammatically correct.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Universe of Things is now available

I'm pleased to announce that we've finally received copies of our latest book, The Universe of Things, a collection of Gwyneth Jones's short fiction, from the printer. It is late getting to us, due to a combination of the terrible weather in the eastern US and the holidays, which means we've already passed the official release date. Still, we've decided to discount sales of the book through our website anyway, until January 25. You can purchase it here for $15.

The stories in The Universe of Things span Gwyneth Jones's career, from "The Eastern Succession," first published in 1988, to the just-published "Collision."  Each opens a window into a richly depicted culture in which intelligent, resourceful characters struggle to make sense of the mysteries of their world.

In the introduction by Steven Shaviro, author of Doom Patrols and Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society, Shaviro notes, "As a feminist writer, Jones refuses to accept compromises that leave gender inequities in place—and recognizes how they may well have staved off something worse. And as a science fiction writer, Jones shows deep awareness of how provisional, and fragile, all our acceptances and reconciliations can be, for there are always new potentials, new cultural or technological disruptions in the offing. Jones envisions a future that is different enough from the present that we are forced to recognize the contingency—and changeability—of the things we take most for granted."



Starred Review. "Clarke Award-winner Jones creates several wondrous universes in which reality and fantasy bleed into each other. A sword-and-sorcery virtual world masquerades as therapy ('Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland'). A self-harming princess and office worker makes a real marriage out of an evil spell ('The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle'). Jones takes classic fairy tales like Cinderella ('La Cenerentola') or genre tropes such as the haunted house ('Grandmother's Footsteps') and reveals that the wonder and the horror lie not in glass slippers or creaking staircases but in the relationships revealed when 'dreams come true.' Jones's sharp writing forces the reader to reconsider the standard building blocks of SF in light of real human history, sociology, and radical analyses of power structures. As engineer-journalist Johnny Guglioli observes in 'Blue Clay Blues,' The technology is helpless to save the world. It's what goes on between people that fucks things up."   — Publishers Weekly, Nov 9, 2010

"[Gwyneth Jones] is at core a hard SF writer who can whip up an alien-artifact instantaneous transfer collider torus or a posthuman diaspora with the best of them, but it's uncommon when we see the same hard-SF rigor applied equally to issues of colonialism, gender identity, sexuality, or even parenting. The Universe of Things is the most comprehensive collection of her short fiction to be published in the US, containing 15 stories dating from 1988 to 2009, only seven of which appeared in her PS Publishing collection Grazing the Long Acre in 2009...."  —Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, Jan 2011

SLF's 2011 Older Writers Grant


The Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF) is pleased to announce that it is accepting applications for the 2011 Older Writers Grant. The grant of $750 is available to any writer of speculative literature of 50 years or older at the time of application who is just beginning to work professionally in the field. There are no restrictions on the use of the grant money.

The grant will be awarded by a committee of SLF staff members on the basis of interest and merit. Applicants are asked to submit a brief autobiographical statement, a writing sample, and a bibliography. For full details on how to apply for the grant, please see the SLF web site:, or email Applications must be received by March 31st 2011. The successful applicant will be announced on June 1st 2011.

The Speculative Literature Foundation is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the interests of readers, writers, editors and publishers in the speculative literature community.

"Speculative literature" is a catch-all term meant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard and soft science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern mythmaking -- any literature containing a fabulist or speculative element.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Winter 2011 issue of the Aqueduct Gazette is out

Two items of Aqueduct Press news: first, Aqueduct Press's website has had a (much needed) face-lift; and second, the new issue of the Aqueduct Gazette is available now for (free) download. As with the last issue, Paige Clifton-Steele edited the new issue. The contents include an interview with Suzy McKee Charnas, a Spotlight on PM Press, and an essay by Andrea Hairston, as well as a look at new Aqueduct Press books that will be out soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Quote of the day

The idea of forming people out of grammatical clauses seems so fantastical at the start that you hide your terror in a smokescreen of elaborate sentence making, as if character can be drawn forcibly out of the curlicues of certain adjectives piled ruthlessly on top of one another. In fact, character occurs with the lightest of brushstrokes. Naturally, it can be destroyed lightly, too. I think of a creature called Odradek, who at first glance appears to be a "flat star-shaped spool for thread" but who is not quite this, Odradek who won't stop rolling down the stairs, trailing string behind him, who has a laugh that sounds as if it has no lungs behind it, a laugh like rustling leaves. You can find the inimitable Odradek in a one-page story of Kafka's called "The Cares of a Family Man." Curious Odradek is more memorable to me than characters I spent three years on, and five hundred pages.    --Zadie Smith, "That Crafty Feeling"

The "laughing, mischievous Le Guin"

Strange Horizons posted Paul Kincaid's review of 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin today. Interestingly, the highlight, for Kincaid, is the "laughing, mischievous Le Guin."  An aside in the first paragraph ("What followed was one of those convivial communal meals that feature so often in good feminist literature and so rarely in fiction by men"), by the way, somewhat startled me. In any case, if you're interested in the book, do go read Kincaid's review. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 29: Claire Light

Reading in 2010
by Claire Light

Things I read this year that made me think:

1. Robin McKinley Dragonhaven: A boy growing up in a dragon sanctuary goes through a sort of coming of age ritual, spending the night in the wild by himself. But when he stumbles upon a dying dragon who has just given birth, In getting away from her usual late-teens female protagonist, McKinley has allowed herself to do something very interesting with this a-boy-and-his-dragon story. There's very little romance here; the relationship between the boy and the dragon is a parent/child relationship, and the arc is both one of a teen-aged single father, and one of two different species learning to communicate. You can see McKinley's obsession with inimical beings overcoming their differences and learning to understand and love one another. But this time, she takes greater risks with the story, and allows the alien species to be truly alien. And she does it all in the chatty, digressive language of a highly verbal teenager.

   2. Cynthia Kadohata Outside Beauty: What are the problems with being beautiful and loving life? It's not the usual setup for teen angst, but this YA is unusual in more ways than one. A Japanese American mother enchants her four daughters (from four different fathers) with her attitude that life is a constant delight. They believe her, and their childhood is happy, punctuated by visits from and to their various fathers, each of whom was charmed in a different way by the mother's beauty and delicious perspective. But when the mother has a devastating accident and the girls have to split up and go live with their fathers, they find that this blithe outlook may not have been serving them well, and that the father with no beauty, grace, or charm may be the best father of them all.

   3. Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North: This book may need no introduction with Aqueduct's readership, but in case you missed out, this is one smart piece of world-building. In a dystopian future England, ruled with iron fists after environmental breakdown restricts resources, a woman runs away from her failed marriage and a no-hope life to a remote women-only commune where an army is building. Some of the logic of their rebellion is weak, but the scenes in the commune are wonderfully imagined. A great inheritor of classic feminist sf.

   4. Zetta Elliott A Wish After Midnight: Some of my favorite middle grade books when I was a kid were the Connecticut Yankee-style stories of kids being zapped back in time to experience history first-hand. This YA does them one better, by raising the stakes on the protagonist's involvement in the past. An African American girl growing up poor in Brooklyn makes a wish and wakes up during the American Civil War draft riots. She's badly beaten by a mob, and falls in with an abolitionist group. Elliott doesn't make the mistake of retconning anachronistic views of race onto the white abolitionists; they are complex and heavily burdened with bigotry. But it is her nuanced handling of the protagonist that makes the novel so good: the more subtle forms of racism this teenaged girl experiences in the present are illuminated by her trip to the past, and she loses her innocence in more than one way. The book ends with a cliff-hanger, and I can't wait for the sequel!

5. Ed Lin This is a Bust and Snakes Can't Run: The recent TV show Life on Mars (both Brit and American versions) renewed our interest in seventies-era cop tales. Ed Lin's new series gives that trope a twist: his hero is one of New York's Finest's first Chinese detectives, and he's working Chinatown. Lin commits to period detail -- and to the complexities of Chinese American enclave society -- to a fault: often the mystery-plotlines take a backseat to exploring that world. But I'm not complaining. It's a fascinating world, and the result is the love child of Chan is Missing and Serpico. I'm now an official fan and will be reading 'em as they come out.

   6. Nami Mun Miles from Nowhere: If you asked me to name the tropes and elements of literary fiction that I most despise, I'd list: novels-told-in-linked-stories, autobiographical fiction, troubled-teen epiphany, deliberate urban grit, and "poetic" diction. Yet Miles from Nowhere, drowning in my least favorite things, is a slam dunk. I think it's the difference between a genuine gift for fiction, and trendiness: Mun makes this way seem like the only way to tell her story. She has a strong and delicate hold on the "telling detail," and doesn't waste our time and patience throwing images at us, hoping something will stick. She also knows when to get out of the way of telling a story. I hesitate to recommend this to writers, knowing that it will just encourage more people to try this; but maybe it can be a negative example: if you can't pull such a feat off this gracefully, try just telling the story straight.

7. John Green and David Levithan Will Grayson Will Grayson: Two boys, both named Will Grayson, are struggling with identity and sexuality in Chicago. One, who is straight, is overshadowed by his enormous (physically and personally) gay best friend, Tiny. The other is trying to fend off his best girlfriend's crush, while pursuing a love affair with a boy he meets online. The two meet one fateful night, which changes both of their worlds. A collaboration between two writers, each writing alternating chapters about two characters with the same name, really shouldn't have worked. But it did, and beautifully. Writing in the first-person speech of their characters, the authors were able to get around the problem of clashing authorial voices. And the convergence of the two stories feels natural, especially since they converge with musical theater. But the real triumph of the book is the character Tiny Cooper, who really should have been my best friend in high school, and who is hands down the most interesting character I've seen in YA since Octavian Nothing.

8. Mark C. Carnes Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America: I'm not sure I'm recommending this as a fun read to anyone: it tends towards the academic. But it was one of the books that got me thinking this year. Carnes' interest in the development of contemporary ideas about masculinity takes him back to the origins and heyday of fraternal societies -- such as the Masons or the Oddfellows -- in the 19th century U.S. He points out that the pseudo-religious fraternal organizations were deliberately opposed to the Christianity of the second Great Awakening, which empowered women and had a distinct feminine bent. I read this for research for a novel, and I'm really pleased to see increasing amounts of scholarship on the origins of our ideas of manliness. It's a good book for those interested in the history of gender roles.

9. S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History: Gwynne tells a nearly lost story of how in the mid-nineteenth century, the Comanches -- who were at that time the best light cavalry in the world -- actually turned back the tide of Euro-American westward expansion for about two decades. In the process, he contextualizes the real people behind the classic John Wayne flick The Searchers. I love a good narrative history, and this is a great one. I'm still working off of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee's presentation of the interaction between Euro-American settlers and Native Americans. That's the one in which First Nations were, one by one, fought, treated with, cheated, and debased. It's good to have my conceptions smashed and reformed every once in a while; and to be reminded that history is never just about oppressors and oppressed, but is a very complicated story -- too complicated to tell in one book.

10. Afsaneh Mogadam Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price: The author hides behind a pseudonym, the protagonist is also so hidden; it's hard to know if this is journalism, propaganda, creative nonfiction, or something else entirely. But this story of a young man who decides to participate in the protests against the stealing of the 2009 Iranian election is, for me, a rare narrative glimpse behind conflicting, flat, and agenda-ridden media depictions of a society I know nothing about. The protagonist has his brief moment of freedom in what appears to be an entirely evil regime, and is then arrested, held, and tortured. The book owes a great deal to 1984 and other 20th century political incarceration narratives; in fact, it's easy to see the seams where the narrative is sewn together to make a more affecting story. My helplessness to understand what is real and what is not in the face of the media onslaught about Iran is pretty telling; the book won't answer any of those questions, but it will raise them, tantalizingly.

  11. Suzy McKee Charnas The Holdfast Chronicles: A classic I've never read before. A four-novel cycle about a tiny, holdout community of humans who have survived the Earth's environmental collapse by completely oppressing women and incompletely oppressing young men. In the course of the series, the young men rise up against their leaders, destroying much of what is left of their society; then women who have escaped slavery return to free their sisters, and destroy half again of that. Charnas' basic premise -- that men are capable of completely overlooking the essential humanity of women for centuries -- may have been easier to believe in the seventies. It's harder to swallow now. But if you can get past that pretty big stumbling block, the cycle is an amazingly, and increasingly complex piece of world- and character-building. Difficult, rich, and enjoyable, it's holding fast as a timeless work of literature, and not merely a topical work of politics.

12. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games trilogy: Proof that we are in a true golden age of young adult fiction, this dystopian trilogy raises the bar on both the dystopian trend, and every other YA-money-making trend. A teenaged girl from the coal-mining province of a city-centered totalitarian dictatorship is one of two "tributes" chosen annually from each province to fight-to-the-death in the televised "Hunger Games." Her successful bid to save her partner's life touches off a rebellion, which leads to a war even she couldn't have foreseen. The series is morally complex, as is the de rigueur love triangle. It's not a feel-good series, but you'll feel good anyway.

Claire Light is a founder and former senior editor of the nonprofit Asian American magazine Hyphen and has been a contributing editor at nonprofit magazine Other. She's published stories and articles in McSweeney's, Far Thing, Hyphen, Other, Sensor, Viet Tide, and various online and print zines. Aqueduct Press published her collection Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles in 2010, as well as her essay "Girl in Landscape: How to Fall into a Politically Useless Narrative Rut and Notions of How to Get Back Out" in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles. She blogs at her personal blog, SeeLight, at a mapping blog, atlas(t), and at the Group Asian American issues blog at Hyphen magazine.

Slightly Behind and to the Left makes io9's 2010 best sf list

In Speculative Fiction 2010 Standouts over at io9, Annalee Newitz offers her list of "the 15 best speculative fiction books of 2010." Included on her list is Claire Light's Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles. Aqueduct is now selling this in an e-book edition for $5.95, by the way. It's an interesting list, so check it out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dots and their spurious mysteries

Have you noticed how the media have created a "mystery" out of recent incidents of mass deaths of birds and fish, which scientists say are unrelated? Such incidents happen around the world with some frequency and mostly get reported as one-off oddities. The latest report is of hundreds, "possibly thousands" of turtle doves dying in the Italian town of Faenza.  The dead birds, according to news reports, have "a mysterious blue stain" in their beaks. The media's creation of a spurious mystery kicked off with the incident in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, in which about 5000 birds, mostly red-winged blackbirds, died of internal injuries now being attributed to fireworks. Next was the deaths of a few hundred birds a few hundred miles away (attributed to powerlines), in Louisiana, followed by the deaths of 2 million fish in Maryland, with other mass fish deaths in Brazil and New Zealand (and Arkansas, again) and 40,000 (dead) crabs washed up on New England beaches. 

Talk about clueless coverage. The reports may be careful not to suggest a common cause, but sneakily imply some mysterious (cosmic?) cause. (Anything to pique readers' and viewers' attention, right?) But as a matter of fact, 21st-century Earth is an extremely hazardous environment for the planet's wildlife. Habitat continues to shrink at an incredible pace, migration patterns are being forced to shift because of radical changes in the environment, and toxins are everywhere. (BP's blowout & obscene use of methane-generating "dispersants" is just the tip of the iceberg.) And we now know, thanks to Wikileaks, that the EPA approved the use of a pesticide they knew would kill honey bees. (And since approval has done so, on a massive scale.) The fish that have been dying in recent days apparently died from cold. Obviously that's the sort of problem fish faced even before human beings decided that their god-given "stewardship" of the earth is not about care-taking but exploitation. And yet for all I know the shifts in migration patterns and habitats brought about by global warming might have something to do with it. I'm not a marine biologist, so I don't really know. But do you notice that when the media name fireworks, power lines, and poisoning as causes of avian death, the media treat these causes as they would random lightning strikes. Which is to say, a contained but uncontrollable event that is in effect an Act of God (as insurance policies like to phrase it).

Maybe the media thinks human beings are like God? (Or at least that certain human beings are?) Well as far as birds, fish, and amphibians are concerned, I guess they are.

Kids Doing Real Science

How cool is this? A ten-year-old New Brunswick girl has discovered a supernova (240 million miles from Earth). (Link thanks to the Geek Feminism Blog) The Globe and Mail reports:
Kathryn [Gray] is the youngest person ever to have discovered a stellar explosion, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada says. Her find was confirmed by Arizona-based Canadian amateur astronomer Jack Newton, who holds the record for the discovery of the most supernovas by an amateur in 2010, and Illinois-based amateur astronomer Brian Tieman.

Kathryn was rather blasé on Monday about her discovery. She was not quite sure what to think about it, her mother Susan said in an interview: “She did not understand why everyone thought it was such an amazing thing. For her, it was just something she works on with her dad.”


Amateur astronomer Dave Lane, who provided the images of the stars for Kathryn, said finding a supernova is not an earth-shattering event.

“But every supernova discovery goes into the body of knowledge that helps astronomers understand the universe,” he said from Halifax. Distances in space can be determined by measuring the energy and brightness of supernovas. “It will not change the price of bread, but it will help us understand the age of the universe and where the universe began, it is part of that puzzle,” he said. In recent years, around 300 supernovas have been discovered annually.
Another case of kids doing real science (link also provided by the Geek Feminism Blog), a group of British eight year-olds have published a research paper on bees-- in Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed science journal. Here's Wired Science:
“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the students wrote in the paper’s abstract. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

The paper itself is well worth reading. It’s written entirely in the kids’ voices, complete with sound effects (part of the Methods section is subtitled, “‘the puzzle’…duh duh duuuhhh”) and figures drawn by hand in colored pencil.

The project, which began three years ago, grew out of a lecture neuroscientist Beau Lotto of University College London gave at the school, where his son Misha was a student. Lotto spoke about his research on human perception, bumblebees and robots, and then shared his ideas on how science is done: “Science is nothing more than a game.”

“Nature’s way for us to discover patterns and relationships is to play. That’s the same aim that science has,” Lotto said. “I think everyone does science every day. The scientific process is part of life.”
Read the rest of the article here, describing, for instance, how the student "designed a series of puzzles for the bees [they were studying] to solve." The article's a great antidote to stories about US schools' defunding their long-running Science Fairs.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Now's the time to make programming proposals for WisCon

The newest edition of ecube is out-- Vol. 35, n.6-- declaring that there are 143 days to WisCon 35 and reminding us of the following looming deadlines:

Program idea submission ( closes January 28.

Party parlor reservations ( close February 1.

Academic session proposals ( close February 14.

Art show applications ( and scholarship nominations ( close February 28.

Editorial trimming of award news

Am I the only one to have noticed this? Locus Online has chosen to exclude one of the awards announced last week by the Carl Brandon Society from its coverage of the news. I say "chosen" because the exclusion was obviously not inadvertent, since the site confirmed the erasure in its headline. Although reading that news item might make you wonder, I firmly believe that Vandana Singh will indeed receive the CBS's 2008 Parallax Award for her novella, Distances, when the awards are officially made at Arisa.

To me, the slight feels a slap in the face. Am I being ridiculously sensitive? Perhaps I am. But such disrespect also seems to bode ill for the Carl Brandon awards, since they're still very young.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cheerleading for Naomi

As a fangirl and cheerleader for the life and works of Naomi Mitchison (have you ever tried cheerleading to bagpipe music, on which Mitchison has a fascinating meditation in her notes to The Bull Calves (1947)?), I was absolutely thrilled to discover, quite by chance, that the Scottish publishers Kennedy and Boyd are issuing a Naomi Mitchison Library Series of reprints of some of her very numerous works, under the general editorship of Professor Isobel Murray. They are also issuing previously uncollected Essays and Journalism by Mitchison under the editorship of Moira Burgess, although only one of the projected volumes (Carradale) appears to have been published so far.

This is a very exciting development, and although the publishers are Scottish and their general focus is Scottish literature (why not check out their Twentieth Century Scottish Womens Fiction Series and Nineteenth Century Scottish Womens Fiction Series?) they do not appear to be restricting their Mitchison republication programme to those works of hers which could be classified under the heading of Twentieth Century Scottish Literary Renaissance, but include several of her historical novels about classical antiquity, at least one of her African novels, the first volume of her delightful memoirs Small Talk, the diary of her trip to Vienna in 1934 to carry aid from British sympathisers to beleagured Austrian socialists, and her remarkable short fantasy from the early 1930s, Beyond This Limit. I also note that commemorative volumes which she edited or contributed to about her distinguished female forebears are also included, so this is perhaps a wider recuperation of women neglected by history.

Perhaps not entirely overlooked by history, but possibly not a figure known to everyone, the Byzantine princess and historian, Anna Comnena, was the subject of a short biography by Mitchison (originally published in 1928, and now reissued by Kennedy and Boyd) which I am currently reading with great enjoyment. This was one in an, alas, forgotten series of short studies of 'Representative Women' which went well beyond the obvious heroines in bringing the stories of forgotten foremothers to attention.

Monday, January 3, 2011

If ducks attended football games

We've had several successive days without rain, here in Seattle, though with relatively cold temperatures. The cold weather has made walks at the Union Bay fill a bit different from the rainy winter norm. Most critically, all of the ponds, even the biggest ones, have frozen over, as well as some of the lake's inlets. Which means that waterfowl are for the time being pretty much restricted to the large expanses of the lake. Yesterday, during our walk, as we were looking out at all the ducks, coots, grebes, and cormorants amassed in the cove, Tom remarked that if ducks attended football games, this is what it would sound like. The sound was an incredible mix of the nasal honks of mallards and gadwalls, the cute barks of buffleheads, the growls of northern shovelers, and the squeak-toy cries of American widgeons. Now that the main pond is frozen over, the only birdsounds to be heard there are from red-winged blackbirds and other perching birds.

The hottest item of bird gossip this last week has been about the trumpeter swans visiting the lake. Last Wednesday a woman I encountered on the main loop breathlessly told me "There are six swans over there!" and pointed toward the western inlet of the lake. Someone else had told her they were trumpeter swans. (She didn't have binoculars with her and so couldn't verify that for herself.) Tom and I accordingly took off in hot pursuit (abandoning our fix on the Cooper's hawk we'd been watching), but we never did see them. On Thursday, though, we saw a pair of them in another part of the lake, and they were without doubt trumpeter swans, unmistakable with their black beaks-- very beautiful, and very big. In my binoculars I spied a rowboat very near them and fiercely envied the people who were getting such a privileged close-up. I was struck by how swiftly the swans were moving over the water, faster than I've ever seen any waterfowl move. But the final piece of gossip came yesterday. The white board at the fill's kiosk mentioned six trumpeter swans-- and asserted in parentheses and with a couple of exclamation points that these were the three grown-up swans and their mates of the babies that had been at the lake two years ago.

I've decided I love the bareness of the branches of the fill's trees in winter. Not only can you see where the nests are, but you can also spot hawks very easily from a great distance. The red-tailed hawk I got a picture of yesterday is one of the regulars. But there are also a couple of Cooper's hawks, plus, of course, the pair of eagles who have a nest in a tree on the residential street that borders one side of the fill, who spend a lot of time in the fill. At the fill, every season has its particular pleasures to offer. Color me fascinated.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 28: Haddayr Copley-Woods

A Good Science Read
by Haddayr Copley-Woods

I love a good science read. Love love it. There are often good sources for solid scientific information that is even sometimes well written. But the confluence of convincingly presented statistics which refute common truisms, layman's-level language without losing a whisker of intellectual rigor, and lots of sly humor is truly rare.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by research psychologist Christopher Ryan, PhD, and practicing psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá, MD, is exactly that kind of book. I have not read such delightful, convincing, and readable science writing since the dearly lamented Stephen Jay Gould.

This book is funny, absorbing, clear-eyed, and deeply anti-patriarchal in a way that feels incidental to the facts rather than rising from any agenda -- which I find utterly, gleefully vindicating and deeply satisfying.

The stated agenda of this book is to prove that despite years of scientific and social leaders telling us that humans evolved to be monogamous, we in fact evolved to have multiple sexual partners either simultaneously or at least in fairly quick succession.

I think anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the world around us would come to this conclusion: if monogamy were a deep and driving natural human force, why would we need social and legal laws to enforce it? Why, as the book points out, do some people risk stoning and death for extra marital sexual relations if it is our natural state to be blissfully, lifelongedly (shhhh it's a word now) monogamous?

Well, because it isn't human nature, that's why.

The authors go on at length to pull apart what they call the 'standard narrative,' first presenting the assumptions that have influenced so much of scientific and social thought, as well as their extremely flawed originators. This bit of social history was really quite eye opening, with titles such as "How Darwin Insults Your Mother (The Dismal Science of Sexual Economics)." They not only point out the forefathers' (and one mother's) nearly willful refusal to see the evidence in front of them, but they also point out the better way to interpret the same data in clear, no-nonsense and historically deliciously gossipy ways. They point out that the only apes which are monogamous are gibbons -- more closely related to monkeys than to humans. They also point out how rare lifelong monogamy is among animals entirely, killing such sacred cows as swans and penguins. Sorry, folks, but they practice serial monogamy -- like nearly every other supposedly monogamous animal. Prairie voles, which are famously set up to be an example to us (as we are so closely related, one assumes) will apparently have sex with anything that moves but will only sit next to their lifelong 'spouses.' Aw.

After tearing apart basic and truly flawed assumptions such as sexual competition and presumed desires for human males only to raise their own offspring (and thus control female sexuality), Jethá and Ryan turn to the actual evidence, looking at a wide variety of cultures throughout history and throughout the world to point out that so many aspects of human nature we feel are innate truly are instead cultural, such as sexual jealousy or marriage itself. What I found particularly refreshing was their refusal to exoticize and worship the 'primitive' as a somehow non-cultural being pure and closer to our ancestors than we are, yet still use the data of what few current pre-agrarian or nearly pre-agrarian societies we have at our disposal in real and convincing ways.

What I actually found the most fascinating about this book was not its stated premise, although they certainly make their point with a wealth of well-presented historical and physical data.

What was to me the most compelling was the way Ryan and Jethá pulled apart scientific assumptions by looking closely at the motivations behind various well-regarded evolutionary psychologists and primate scientists, and compellingly presented a pre-agrarian world which was not, as Hobbes called it: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," but in fact communal, plentiful, peaceful, and long. I will leave him 'nasty' as apparently we were doing the nasty all the time, with pretty much anyone we wanted. Also there was no indoor plumbing.

Critics of evolutionary psychology point out that there is no way of knowing how we may have acted or interacted, although the fossil record does show that after humans managed to survive infancy, we had quite long lives before the agricultural revolution introduced famine, plagues, and bad nutrition. The authors of Sex at Dawn acknowledge this, and so instead of making suppositions beyond the fact that pre-agricultural times left us little to fight over, they look closely at the human body, and the practices of our closest ancestors, chimps and bonobos.

The human body, seen through the eyes of Ryan and Jethá, is fascinating, and tells a wonderful tale of competition on a cellular level -- and an equally wonderful story about cooperation between sexes rather than competition.

Their vision of what early humankind was probably like is far more compelling than the story we've all been told of men fighting over 'their women' and controlling the fertility of women much like gorillas, who are not terribly closely related to us in comparison with the freely sexual chimps and bonobos.

The premise I found so heartening and enlightening about this book had nothing to do with sex. It had to do with the patriarchal idea of individual competition. Of 'nasty, brutish' motivations between the sexes that are essentially at odds. It tears that idea asunder and presents us with a far more compelling idea, one that rings far more true: one of humans as distinctly human not by competing with each other, but by cooperating with each other. An idea of what makes us human not as warfare, but as communication, non-reproduction-based sexuality, and cooperation.

With lines like "Despite its lack of curlicues, the human penis is not without interesting design features," it made me laugh out loud every ten pages. Just as importantly, this book made me proud to be human.

REVIEWER'S NOTE: The last chapter is disappointing. I wrote the authors to ask about it, the difference was so striking, and it turns out to have been a concession to the publisher, hastily assembled in exhaustion. I'd suggest reading it in that light, or perhaps skipping it -- as it wasn't part of the original authors' vision.

Haddayr Copley-Woods' fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Best American Erotica. She is a regular commentator and blogger for Minnesota Public radio. She lives in Minneapolis where she works as an advertising copywriter.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 27: Eileen Gunn

Who am us, anyway?
by Eileen Gunn

The most engaging and thought-provoking book I read this past year was Thomas Metzinger’s book on the neurology of consciousness, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (Basic Books, New York, 2009). This is a popularization of his much longer, much denser Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2003), but, frankly, neither of them are beach books.  You’re going to have to extend some effort to reap the reward: a new perspective on how your own mind works.

The Ego Tunnel is accessible, but not promiscuously so: it’s a discussion of the current state of neurological research into what the mind is and how it works, coupled with advocacy for Dr. Metzinger’s proposed (and not uncontroversial) theory of the self: how our brains construct our reality neurologically, using data about our environment that is collected via our senses, filtered by our nervous system, and assembled by a remarkable set of systems in the body and brain. He also takes a leap forward to assess the ethics of two advancements that he thinks are near, but have not yet been realized:  the ability to create self-aware artificial life and the knowledge of how to increase human intelligence and alter the functionality of the brain.

The past few decades have been a rich time for research into the neurology of consciousness, and for the publication of popularized summaries of that research.  If you are familiar with the popular, slightly irritating books by Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and other works) and V.S. Ramachandran (The Tell-Tale Brain), or with the late Patrick Wall’s authoritative and remarkably poetic book on the physical and mental processes of pain, Pain: the Science of Suffering, or with any of the many, many popular science books that deal with how human and animal brains function, then you have a hint of the complexity of the subject.  

Most books about how the mind works are either too broad and unfocused to be truly informative about current research or too narrow and technical for the lay reader (and I mean me) to get an overview of the subject.  Drs. Sacks and Ramachandran discuss in non-technical language the aspects of the brain that they specialize in, but, as medical doctors, they are more practical and experiential than theoretical. Their books are anecdotal in nature: warm-and-fuzzy case histories of patients with brain injuries or anomalies that explain specific details of brain function. It’s sometimes hard to cut through the fuzz.

Dr. Metzinger, however, is not a physician; he is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist, and directs the Theoretical Philosophy Group and the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. He is thus charged with using neurology to examine  the larger questions that theoretical philosophy traditionally addresses: what is existence? what is the self? is there a distinction between the mind and the body? and with examining the ethics of changing the human brain and creating artificial intelligences.

Dr. Metzinger first proposes his thesis: there is no such thing as the self.  The subjective sense of being a conscious person – the sense of being a self that is distinct from the body and present in a single, unified reality – is not a separate, coherent brain function but rather the result of many different systems running at the same time. 

It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness – that is, how it can arise in the brain, which is a purely physical object – if we don’t come to terms with this simple proposition: that, to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences?

At best, he says, it’s a process. The problem is that we have a lot of relevant data on how the brain works, but no big picture of consciousness that integrates all the data. He asks a question that is, in the context of his expertise, rather touching:

Why is there always someone having the experience? Who is the feeler of your feelings and the dreamer of your dreams? [...] Why is your conscious reality your conscious reality?

This is, of course, an old, old question, and contemporary neuroscience has not answered it any more accurately than Plato or Timothy Leary. Dr. Metzinger’s answer is that there is no single entity that is the conscious mind. The good news is that you’re not alone in the universe; the bad news is that you’re not actually there at all.

Then, so that the reader can understand why he dismisses the concept of self, he explains how the brain models external reality using input from the senses, and how proprioception – the feeling of having a specific body, a specific number of hands and feet, etc., a conscious physical self – is made up of brain functions that are located in specific, mapped areas of the brain and can be disrupted by brain malfunction, direct brain stimulation with an electrode, and even simple visual/somatic tricks. 

After discussing autoscopy and anomalies of proprioception such as phantom limb syndrome and the rubber hand illusion, Dr. Metzinger explains how religious and mystical phenomena, out-of-body and near-death experiences, supernatural and paranormal manifestations, and symptoms of schizophrenia and dementia can be clearly understood as specific aspects of the function or dysfunction of these systems of consciousness. 

I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of autoscopy, in which the self lacks identification with its body, or feels it is moving in and out of two bodies, or seems to be viewing the body at a distance, or feels the presence of an invisible companion. There are various ways of generating  autoscopic effects. For instance, stimulating a part of the brain called the angular gyrus can activate two very different autoscopic effects, depending on which side of the brain is stimulated. On the left side, stimulation gave the patient the impression that a shadowy person was lurking behind her; on the right side, it yielded an out-of-body experience, in which the patient was floating below the ceiling and looking down at herself. These effects, which can be demonstrated to take place in the physical brain, could explain how religious or mystical feelings are created, and perhaps why children often have an unshakable belief in having an invisible friend. 

The body apparently has its own actions, in which conscious intentionality does not take part, and yet we generally have a feeling that we acted intentionally: we have, in his term, “a feeling of agency.” Dr. Metzinger illustrates this with a description of the well-known alien hand syndrome (familiar to fans of  Dr. Strangelove) and presents a good bit of information that, while inconclusive, indicates that people can think they acted deliberately simply because they acted. The feeling that we act out of “free will” could be a necessary illusion that allows us to act.

He discusses certain attributes of dreaming, which he considers a second aspect of consciousness that is generated for the most part without sensory input, a sort of virtual reality. Dreamers are self-aware, but not ordinarily able to focus their attention on details, to have a feeling of agency, or to control their attention consciously. 

Even more interesting is the extreme instability of the first-person perspective: attention, thinking, and willing are highly unstable, or exist only intermittently, yet the ordinary dreaming Ego does not really care about this, or even notice it. The dream self is like the anosognostic patient who lacks insight into a deficit following a brain injury.

Lucid dreams would seem to be an exception to this.  Dr. Metzinger has frequently experienced lucid dreams and has used that lucidity to explore the dream-state as a scientist, investigating it as a state that sheds light on aspects of the conscious experience, on the various elements that create the self: how they are constructed and how they are woven into one’s dream consciousness.

The last few chapters of The Ego Tunnel veer away from neurology itself into a discussion of the ethical and anthropological problems that Dr. Metzinger, as a philosopher and ethicist, anticipates resulting from deep knowledge of human consciousness. He examines the ethical aspects of his thesis of the absence of a self. He considers his theory to have essentially undermined Judeo-Christian ethics, as he believes that he has disproved the existence of a soul, and thus done away with religious and ethical systems based on a belief in it. He seems to claim, without offering evidence, that discoveries in mind science are a completely uncontrolled explosion of knowledge that will create a crisis of faith in religious and ethical systems and the destruction of “everything mankind has believed for the past twenty-five hundred years,” and that it is the obligation of leading mind researchers to guide humanity through the transition to a post-religious era. 

For what it’s worth, I disagree with this part of his argument. I expect that his thesis, if true, will do little damage to individual belief in the soul or to ethical systems of any persuasion. I am agnostic on the subject of a personal or impersonal God, but I do not find science incompatible with religious belief, and I do not think that the absence of religious belief necessarily correlates with an absence of ethics. In this day and age, for the thoughtful educated believer, the matter of finding or not finding a soul seated in the brain should be irrelevant to belief in a God. For willfully uneducated believers, people who resist understanding as dangerous to belief, the sum of human knowledge is irrelevant, and one bit more or less will not make a difference in their belief system.

Much of Dr. Metzinger’s concern seems prompted by his desire to communicate an understanding of the neurology of behavior and thought to humanity as a whole, to educate people in “pre-scientific cultures” in order to prepare them for what he sees as a sudden, significant change, and to give them the knowledge needed to resist exploitation and oppression. He believes the universe is entering a phase transition, a change to its physical nature, enabled by human intelligence.

Dr. Metzinger specifically endorses the concept of human exceptionalism, which seems odd to me, as it is also at the core of religious belief. He thinks we are special, and posits that humanity, over the past few millennia, could be the means by which the universe becomes aware of itself, through the creation of self-aware artificial intelligences. These intelligences would be even more special than we are, and he feels we need to consider now the ethics of creating them. He illustrates this with a fictional conversation featuring a future artificial ego machine. Neurologists, in my opinion, should leave science fiction to the professionals.

After this rather wild ride into the future, Dr. Metzinger returns to more practical matters. He finishes with a discussion of the problems he foresees in integrating a new self-image for humanity with humanity itself. He addresses ethical questions that will arise with advances in neuroscience: would it be ethical to create artificial intelligences that can suffer? should we use neurological techniques to quickly and easily make permanent changes in a child’s personality or to create a sense of religious awe? if we can enhance intelligence and control emotions neurologically, who should have control of the techniques and substances that would do that?  He cautions that the street will find its uses for new methods of altering the mind, will devise its own techniques, and will distribute them without extensive testing. As with drugs and alcohol, there needs to be some level of government control over these techniques and substances.

At the end of the book, Dr. Metzinger seems to be conducting a one-sided argument with an unseen opponent, who apparently argues that cold and impersonal neuroscience deprives humanity of dignity and self-respect, and that spirituality is somehow completely antithetical to cognitive science. The doctor suggests that advances in understanding and manipulating brain chemistry could be combined with ancient techniques of meditation to introduce humanity to a new universe of self-exploration, and calls for us all to pull together, to create a new cultural context for humanity. Since I find his dichotomy between science and spirituality to be a false premise, I had problems participating on either side of this argument, which seemed to be headed into familiar John C. Lilly/human-potential-movement territory.

In general, I resist philosophy. I flunked philosophy twice at college, two years in a row, because I couldn’t write a paper on Kant. The professor, applying the categorical imperative, considered this an immoral act. So the intricacies of Dr. Metzinger’s discussion of ethics in the final two chapters of the book trigger a fight-or-flight response in me. I want either to flee the argument or to create syllogisms from his premises and knock them over methodically. But the earlier part of the book, in which Dr. Metzinger places the metaphysical problems of philosophy in the context of actual bleeding-edge discoveries in neurology, is reality-based philosophy that questions the nature of reality. And that’s pure catnip, as far as I’m concerned.

Note: The Wikipedia pages I have linked in the text add context to the ideas presented, but should be read, as always, with a certain amount of skepticism.  The Ego Tunnel goes way beyond them in discussing current neurological theory and its implications. But you probably guessed that….

Eileen is the author of the collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Volume Two, which Aqueduct published in 2008. She has received the Nebula and the Sense of Wonder Awards, been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy Awards, and shortlisted for the Tiptree. She is also the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic.  You can follow Eileen on Twitter here: and visit her website here: